In 1095 Pope Urban II launches the First Crusade. Emperor Henry IV and his allies would rather be strung up below a beehive covered in honey than join a scheme devised by the Gregorian Pope.

Does that mean no Germans take part? No, the lack of support by their high aristocrats did not stop the common people. While most of them perish before the crusade had even really begun, some turn their religious fervour into a very different endeavour, bringing untold pain to the Jewish communities of Worms, Mainz, Trier, Metz, Prague and elsewhere

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Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 38 – The First Crusade

Today we will leave Henry IV to fend for himself. Instead, we will be looking at the First crusade and most specifically the role of Germans in that First crusade. A word of warning. In this episode we will have to discuss extreme violence, religiously motivated crimes and suicide. I will give a specific warning when we get there. Feel free to skip from that point onwards. I will make sure that you can pick up seamlessly at episode 39.

Last week we talked briefly about Pope Urban’s famous speech in the field outside the city of Clermont in France that kicker off the crusades. I must confess that I took a bit of artistic licence there and put words into Urban’s mouth that reflect only one of the five different versions of that speech. I felt that was ok given that by and large the gist of the speech is the same in all five versions. Urban calls upon the Christian faithful to free the holy land from the infidels.

I will not give you a full rundown of the whole of the First Crusade. There are a number of excellent indie podcasts on the topic, namely my old colleague from a different world Nick Holmes who has a great show called Byzantium and the Crusades and obviously Sharyn Eastaugh’s epic History of the Crusades. And if you want to read about the crusades, check out Steven Runciman 3 books on the crusades. Brilliantly written and for me still the “go to” source.

Though we are not going to go through the Crusades in detail, there are some elements that had a bearing on German history.

The first of those is the question Why Urban asks for a crusade at this exact point in time, and even more importantly, why was his call successful now? He was not the first to call for Christian knights to aid in the fight against the infidels. There might have been a call for a crusade as far back as 1010 under pope Sergius IV. Pope Alexander II supported the recruitment of Christian knights in the fight against the Muslims in Span and Sicily. And in 1074 Gregory VII proposed a march on Jerusalem to none other than the emperor Henry IV, the man he would excommunicate just a year later. So what are the reasons it worked this time when it had not worked before?

Reason #1 was the rise and rise in lay piety that lay behind the church reform movement.  As their economic conditions improved people began seeking self-actualisation, which in 11th century society meant finding a way to get to heaven. The crusades offered a nearly perfect deal. If you do something, i.e., travel to the holy land to free the sites of Christ’s birth. Life and passion, you will be automatically cleansed of your sins and have a free ticket to heaven. It is the same logic that is behind gym memberships and Yoga classes. The difference is that if halfway through your Yoga class you realise the Tripod Handstand with Lots legs is not for you, you simply stay home numbing your bad conscience with a cup of cocoa. If you go on crusade, halfway through means you are somewhere in Hungary with no food, no horse and under attack from hostile locals.

Reason #2 was more short term. The same economic growth that drove piety had also resulted in a surge in population, leaving the world with an excess of younger sons and daughters. These young people had no chance of an inheritance. There was little chance of gaining land by force after the expansion of the realm of the Christian faith into the east and north had stalled a 100 years ago. The population pressure was brought to bursting in the last 10 years thanks to a series of draughts, freezing cold winters and other freak weather events that had destroyed the crops.

Reason #3 was the weakness of the Truce of God movements. As central authority had almost vanished in France and deteriorated in the empire, the church attempted to maintain some semblance of security by making the feuding lord and castellans swear on powerful relics that they would refrain from fighting on certain days of the week and holy days. That was a suboptimal system to start with since on the free days, feuding, i.e., killing of each their peasants and burning of their fields was perfectly ok. Moreover, these arrangements tended to be forgotten after a few years and normal service resumed until the bishop called another truce. The crusades offered a way to reduce the feuding, since the most aggressive armoured horsemen would join the crusade in search of riches or just sport, whilst those who stayed behind swore not to attack the lands of the absent crusaders.

Reason #4 was the one officially given, i.e., that Jerusalem needed to be freed. It is also the least compelling.

By the time Urban II made his stirring speech, Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands for 460 years. Jerusalem had been captured in 636 by an army of the Caliph Umar, the father-in-law of Mohammed.

As had been the case in most conquests during the caliphate, the Arabs did not force the locals to convert to Islam. That did not mean they could live as they pleased. They did have to pay special taxes, could only maintain their old places of worship but not build new ones, and were generally treated as second class citizens though. But there was little persecution, and the Arabs did not mind in the slightest if Christian tourists came and generously spent their gold and silver. As long as the pilgrims behaved and paid for services, they were welcome.

In the early 11th century travel to Jerusalem had become relatively easy. The Byzantine empire had recovered from the initial dual assault by the Arabs and the Bulgars. It ruled over a coherent landmass from the Hungarian border to Syria. Hence pilgrims could either travel through Germany and Hungary and enter the eastern Roman empire in Belgrade or get there by crossing the Adriatic from Bari to what is today Durazzo in Albania. Once inside the Eastern Roman empire, the excellent roads would bring them via Constantinople and Anatolia to Antioch. Another 200 km on, the pilgrims would enter the Caliphate in Tartus in Syria from where it was just 500 km to Jerusalem.

The journey would take a whole year but was not much more dangerous or strenuous than travel in the Middle Ages was anyway. The comparative ease of the journey meant that pilgrim numbers surged. There were pilgrim hospices run by monks along the way, including the famed hospice of Saint John in Jerusalem had been set up in the 7th century well before the crusades.

For instance, in 1064/65 a large pilgrimage set off from Germany. It was led by the archbishop Siegfried of Mainz and comprised amongst others the bishops William of Utrecht, Otto of Regensburg, and Gunther of Bamberg. This pilgrim group numbered somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 including women and children looking to see the holy sites.

After 1064 the journey had become more dangerous. The Caliphate had begun to crumble under its own internal problems and attacks from Seldjuk Turks. The Turks had been around for a long time controlling the lands between the caliphate and India. In the 11th century they began exploring the opportunities arising from the weakness of the Caliphs. A long conflict between Arabs and Turks ensued during which warlords carved out smallish territories that regularly changed hands whilst the two major Islamic powers, the Fatimids and the Turkish sultans tried to gain control.

At the same time the Turks had begun attacking first Armenia and then the Byzantine empire itself. The Byzantine empire had its own problems as the Macedonian dynasty had failed to produce a male heir. The empresses Zoe and Theodora held things together for 30 years after the death of the great emperor Basil II.  But when Empress Theodora died in 1056, the state fell into civil war as a succession of civil and military potentate vied for the throne. In this midst of this infighting the Turks advanced. In 1071 they won their great victory at Manzikart. Though they did not immediately take advantage of the defeat of the emperor, Seldjuk warlords would capture most of Anatolia during the 20 years that followed.

Bottom line was that by 1095 the Byzantine empire no longer controlled the route across Anatolia. Not could the caliphs offer safe passage across Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.  Pilgrims were molested and occasionally relieved of their possessions. There were even selected cases where travellers were provided with accelerated entry into heaven.

In other words, the route to Jerusalem had become dangerous because of the absence of a central authority. What wasn’t the case was that a central authority blocked the route to Jerusalem, as Pope urban and his preachers had claimed. Realistically, without the crusades, the situation in the levant would probably have stabilised after some time and whoever one the contest would have reopened the lucrative pilgrim route again. Instead, we ended up with a conflict that in some ways is still continuing today.

And Reason #5 is purely political. It all kicked off with Alexius Komnenos, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire asking the pope whether he would be allowed to recruit some mercenaries in the west to fight against the Muslims. Well, that may well be what he meant, but what Urban understood is that Alexius asked him for help fighting the Muslims.

Pope Urban received the appeal early in 1095 and pondered it on his journey to Clermont. Clermont had initially been scheduled to be an important council, but no one expected a call to free the holy sites of Christendom. The great plan must have formed in his head as he travelled up the Rhone River. His Eureka moment might even have come when he stopped at his former home, the abbey of Cluny to consecrate the (second) largest church in Christendom.

Urban II realised that a successful expedition to Jerusalem under the leadership of the church could resolve all the conflicts of the last decades in one fell swoop.

Just think back and ask yourself why the emperors had such a stronghold over the church for so long? Where does their claim to lead Christianity come from?

It starts with Charlemagne who could claim that he had expanded the reach of the word of Christ into the pagan lands of the Saxons and that he had defended Christianity against the Saracens in Spain.

When Otto the Great came to Rome in 962, he could claim the conversion of the Poles and the defeat of the Hungarians as the Lord’s work. Under Otto II the eastward expansion stopped following the Slav uprising. Otto III reinvigorated the idea of the emperor as the bringer of Christian faith to the east through his pilgrimage to Gniezno.

But after that progress stalled. The Kievan Rus went to the Orthodox church, the Lithuanians remained pagan until 1387 and the emperors failed to control the pagan lands between Poland and Saxony. Expansion of the Christian faith was now the job of the Christian Spanish kingdoms and the Normans in Sicily. What these had in common were two things. One, they were fighting Muslims, not pagans and secondly they were both vassals of the pope, not of the emperor.

The logical conclusion from here is that if the Gregorian Reformers could scale up this effort, the leadership of Christendom would permanently shift from the emperors to the papacy. Henry IV or whoever was his successor would have to submit to the pope and the antipope Clemet III would lose all his remaining support.

The cherry on the cake was that if the expedition was successful, the emperor in Constantinople would be compelled to acknowledge the pope as the spiritual lead, ending the schism between Latin and orthodox Christianity.

And then, finally, all the princes will kiss the feet of the pope, as Gregory VII had set out in his Dictatus Papae of 1075.

All of this made overwhelming sense to the men and women standing in the November mud outside the walls of Clermont, as it made sense to congregations all across France, England and Italy.

Whilst still at Clermont, Urban II received the first major pledge to go on crusade by Count Raymond of Toulouse. Soon the offers to take the cross came in hard and fast. The brother of the King of France, Hugh of Vermandois signed up, as did the count of Flanders and the duke of Normandy. The Normans in Sicily quickly realised that this effort was an easier way to gather some lands in the east than going it alone as they had before. Hence Bohemond, son of Robert Guiscard and his nephew Tancred joined up as well. These high aristocrats began pawning their lands to raise funds to equip and feed an army for a campaign much longer than anyone had undertaken before in medieval Europe. There was however one subsegment of the European nobility who could not see the point of this at all, the German bishops and high aristocrats.

Obviously, Henry IV would rather be hung beneath a beehive covered in honey than join any of Urban II’s schemes. And that would go for most of his allies as well. If Henry and his mates are not going, then the rebel dukes and counts had to stay as well. They could hardly expect Henry IV to respect the Crusader’s immunity issued by Urban II.

There we go. A great war is on, and the Germans stay home – who would have guessed? All the Germans? No.

One of the great vassals of the empire would go on crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon, duke of Lower Lothringia. Godfrey was free to do what he wanted as he had made his peace with the emperor back in 1087 but was not close enough to him to be a target of the rebels. Godfrey raised one of the largest crusader armies, became the Crusades unacknowledged leader and was ultimately crowned the first king of Jerusalem. Godfrey’s leadership eclipsed the official leadership established by Urban II, that of bishop Adhemar de Puy. And with the crusade ultimately under secular, not papal leadership, the big political bet of Urban II did not come through.

The loss of church leadership in the crusade was not the only thing that did not go according to plan. Whilst Urban II organised his professional crusader army, the idea of a crusade went viral. Several preachers, usually monks began calling the common people to go to the holy land. Not next year when all the preparation is done, but right now. Salvation and eternal life is waiting for you. Go now. Drop everything and come along. The most famous of these preachers was Peter, an itinerant monk. Steven Runciman describes him as follows: Peter was an oldish man, born somewhere near Amiens. His contemporaries knew him as “little peter” -chtou or kiokio in the Picard dialect. – but late the hermit’s cape that he habitually wore brought him the surname “the hermit”, by which he is better known to history. He was a man of short stature, swarthy and with a long, lean face, horribly like the donkey he always rode, and which was revered almost as much as he was. He went barefoot and his clothes were filthy. He ate neither bread not meat, but fish and drank wine.

Despite his unassuming physique he clearly inspired people. Guibert of Nogent tells us the “Whatever he said or did, it seemed like something half divine”

Peter started preaching almost immediately after the council of Clermont and he gathered supporters amongst the poor, the townsfolk and the younger sons of knightly families of Northern France, Flanders and the Rhineland, so that when he appeared in Cologne in April 1096, his peasant army had grown to 15,000 people. There was no way such a mass of people could be fed and watered anywhere in 11th century Europe. They were condemned to keep moving. An initial contingent of about 7,000 set off right after easter. This group travelled through Hungary and entered Byzantine territory at Belgrade. There were some hiccups along the way as nobody was expecting the crusaders to arrive that early, but they managed to get to Constantinople in the end.

Peter stayed behind in Germany for a few weeks preaching. That refilled his ranks and he soon had 20,000 followers, mostly men but also women and children hungry for salvation. They as well set off on the land route to Constantinople. Everything went well until they reached the border between Hungary and Byzantium. It seemed the Hungarian governor of the border fortress of Semlin was trying to instil some discipline in the huge horde. Things went out of control over the sale of a pair of shoes in the bazaar. An altercation turned into a brawl, which turned into a riot which turned into a pitched battle, at the end of which the Hungarian city burned down and its garrison was slaughtered. The Byzantine governor watched this in horror from the other side of the Danube. His Petchenegg soldiers tried to establish order, but they quickly realised they had no chance against that huge press of humanity. The garrison fled to Nish with the inhabitants of Belgrade in tow. The pilgrims storm Belgrade but finding little of value burn it down.

As I said at the beginning there are scenes of extreme violence and religiously motivated crimes in the sections that follow. If you are concerned about the impact these could have on you or on other people around you, please close the episode here. You should be able to follow the narrative from the next episode, Episode 39.

After that the emperor sends what must have been a regular army as an escort to lead them to Constantinople. Still too large to stay anywhere for long, the horde is packed off across the Bosporus towards the frontier. Though they were told to wait for the whole army to assemble, they kept moving slowly towards Nicaea, the capital of the Turkish sultan. As they moved, they made no difference between Muslims and Greek Christians, either was robbed of their possessions, their wives and daughters raped, and the men tortured. Months on the road had ripped the last bit of Christian charity out of them.

What this army now often called the Tafurs looked like is best described by Norman Cohn in his book Millennium: “barefoot, shaggy, clad in ragged sackcloth, covered in sores and filth , living on roots and grass and also at times of the roasted corpses of their enemies, the Tafurs were a ferocious band that any country they passed through was utterly devastated. Too poor to afford swords and lances, they yielded clubs weighted with lead, pointed sticks, knives, hatchets, shovels, hoes and catapults. When they charged into battle they gnashed their teeth as though they meant to eat their enemies alive as well as dead”, end quote.

As this army came up against the Sultan’s capital at Nicaea, they believed they could take the city with the help of the lord. Against the disciplined Turkish troops that had defeated the greatest powers of the east, the peasants stood no chance. They were ambushed and within minutes their undisciplined march turned into a chaotic rout. They were back in their camp even before the older folk who were left behind had even woken up. There was no real resistance. Soldiers, women and priests were killed before they even moved. The prisoners were killed except for the boys and girls that were of pleasant enough appearance to be sold as slaves. No more than 3,000 of the 25,000 who set off from Cologne survived. They joined the main crusade and some of them even entered Jerusalem, creating a bloodbath amongst the Muslims whereby the city was covered knee deep in blood and gore.

Peter the hermit had left some of his disciples behind in Cologne to gather even more followers for his doomed adventure. Three leaders emerged, Volkmar, Gottschalk and Count Emich of Leiningen. Volkmar sets off first, followed a few weeks later by Gottschalk.

Emich, count of Leiningen’s army was somewhat different. Though equally driven by lay piety, his followers tended to include more knights and counts and less peasants. And he had better access to information. One piece of information he found particularly useful was about Godfrey of Bouillon. Godfrey of Bouillon, great noble and future king of Jerusalem had found it hard to raise funds for his expedition. Relief came from an unexpected source. Kalonymos, the chief rabbi of the great Jewish community of Mainz had offered Godfrey 500 pieces of silver. The equally famed Jewish community of Cologne paid the same. That generosity was prompted by rumours that Godfrey had vowed to avenge the death of Christ with the blood of the Jews before he set off on crusade. I mean, I would be the last to suggest that Godfrey may have spread the rumour himself or actually made such a vow. A man who supervised the valiant slaughter of the civil population of Jerusalem and the burning of its Jewish congregation in their synagogue is beyond reproach.

Let’s talk briefly about the status of Jews in the empire. I am relying here on Peter Wilson’s great book, The Holy Roman Empire”. According to him, Charlemagne had revived the late imperial patronage of the Jews. They played an important role in the economy as they were able to sell slaves from the Eastern pagan lands to Spain where they would become slave soldiers. He estimates that around the year 1000 there were about 20,000 Ashkenazi Jews in the empire north of the Alps. Under the Ottonians the imperial protection was inconsistent. Otto II allocated the protection of the Jewish communities to the bishops, whilst Henry II expelled 2000 Jews from Mainz in 1012 but had to revoke this decree the following year.

In 1090 our friend Henry IV implemented a wide-ranging reform. He issued a general privilege to the Jews and made himself the Advocatus Imperatoris Judaica, or general protector of the Jews in the Empire. This arrangement persisted until the end of the empire in 1806. The safeguarding of legal, economic and religious rights became a prerogative of the emperor. Implementation of that varied throughout time and we will certainly talk about the successes and failure of this construct as we go along. But is should be note that the general rule stood for over 700 years and, as it was woven into the fabric of the law, granted what Wilson calls a surprising level of autonomy to the Jewish population, notwithstanding their status as second-class citizens.

But we are in the year 1096 and Henry IV is bottled up in Verona and his protection is not worth much.

All that gave count Emich of Leiningen an idea. Maybe the Jewish communities along the route could be made to support the cause. He started in Speyer on May 9th but struggled to get past the bishop’s troops who protected their Jewish community, probably in exchange of a generous donation to the still ongoing building works of the great cathedral. Or maybe for once a prelate was doing his job. Note that the German Bishops had been ordered by Henry IV to protect the Jewish communities after he had heard about persecutions in Northern France.

After the failure in Speyer, Emich and his rabble moved a bit further to Worms. There he spread the rumour that the Jews had drowned a Christian and use the water he had died in to poison the wells. That brought the townsfolk onto the side of the crusaders. They broke into Jewish homes and killed everyone who was not willing to convert. Many Jews had fled into the bishop’s palace. Emich and his men broke down the doors and despite the bishop’s pleading killed all of them, men, women and children, a total of 500 dead.

From Worms he then travelled to Mainz. If you have any notion of geography, you might realise that Emich and his followers are travelling North, not exactly the direction of Jerusalem. Archbishop Rothard did close the gates against the crusaders. But Emich’s arrival triggered riots within the city during which a Christian was killed. The rioters opened the gates and Emich’s forces enter. Again, the Jews seek shelter in the bishop’s palace, and again it is overrun. Resistance against the overwhelming numbers was futile. Some may have been prepared to convert, or at least pretend to convert, but many preferred to die for their faith, either from the enemy’s sords or by suicide.

Here is the report by Salomon bin Simson of what happened then (quote):

“As soon as the enemy came into the courtyard, they found some of the very pious there with our brilliant master, Isaac ben Moses. He stretched out his neck, and his head they cut off first. The others, wrapped by their fringed praying­ shawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. […]

The women there girded their loins with strength and slew their sons and their daughters and then themselves. Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another. The maidens and the young brides and grooms looked out of the Windows and in a loud voice cried: “Look and see, O our God, what we do for the sanctification of Thy great name in order not to exchange you for a hanged and crucified one….”

Then the crusaders began to give thanks in the name of “the hanged one” because they had done what they wanted with all those in the room of the bishop so that not a soul escaped.” (unquote)

This slaughter cost another possibly more than 800 lives.

Emich then tried his luck in Cologne but was less successful as the news had arrived before him and Jews had left the city or hid with their Christian neighbours. Some of his troops separated from the main army and diverted even further away from Jerusalem and attacked the Jewish communities in Trier and Metz. This group then looked for their valiant leader near Cologne killing Jews in Neuss, Wevelinghofen, Eller and Xanten. Not finding him they returned home, their holy work done.

Meanwhile the two other groups under Volkmar and Gottschalk heard about Emich’s pursuits and emulated their efforts by murdering Jews in Magdeburg, Prague, Regensburg, to name a few. 

None of these three groups made it to Jerusalem. By now the king of Hungary had become wary of these peasant crusaders. They were held up at the border and when they began raiding and pillaging, the king deployed his armoured cavalry who killed and dispersed them.

Emich’s unit was the last to arrive. They fought a veritable battle with the Hungarians and even besieged the border fortress of Weissenburg. The arrival of a royal army and a sortie of the garrison brought that to an end. Emich’s troops fled in panic.

Emich himself returned to his possessions in Leiningen, forever disgraced. Disgraced not for his crimes, but for not fulfilling his vow to go to Jerusalem.

I leave it to you to decide whether the First Crusade was a glorious moment in European history. As for German history, I can only look at it as a moment of shame and horror. It was the first large scale persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages, containing all the hallmarks of what was to come. The blood libel, the poisoning of wells and the inability of the authorities to protect them.

Next week we will return to the rollercoaster that is the life of Henry IV. He is back in Germany, reconciled with the southern German dukes and all could now go smoothly. But history still has one last humiliation in store for him, the longest ruling, or not really ruling medieval emperor. I hope to see you then.

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